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Birdwatching highlights in the Ottawa region

With its abundance of waterways, wetlands, forests and parks, Canada’s capital region is a great place to go birdwatching year round. Whether you’re a novice birder or active twitcher, birding is a relaxing and soothing way to connect with nature. Curious about what kinds of birds you might see, and where and when to find them? Here are a few of the most common Ottawa birds, as well as some more unusual ones you might be lucky enough to spot and add to your “life list.”

Birding tips and info:

  • Please follow birding etiquette, such as the Ottawa Field-Naturalists’ Club (OFNC) code of conduct, as well as any rules posted at individual sites. 
  • This article does not suggest specific birding locations, as seeing a bird anywhere is never guaranteed. However, the OFNC regularly gathers and shares sighting information
  • Some beautiful creatures, such as owls, are endangered and highly sensitive to their environment. Therefore, please do not report or share locations where you sight owls.
  • For the best bird feeding experience, choose appropriate and nutritious food (please do not feed bread to birds). Local specialty stores, such as Wild Birds Unlimited and Gilligallou carry high-quality options. 

Northern Cardinal

One of the most brightly coloured local birds, the Northern Cardinal stays in Ottawa all year long. With his bright red feathers, the male is the showstopper, but the mainly brown female has touches of red on her wings and tail. Both sexes have an easy-to-spot head crest, black facial markings and a bright red bill. Unusually among bird species, both females and males sing. (Usually males are the musical ones.) Listen for their distinctive song, then look for cardinals on the lower branches of trees and in dense shrubs. You may spot them foraging on the ground, too.

Prime Ottawa spotting locations: Urban parks, wooded areas, backyard feeders.

Canada Goose

In Ottawa, chances are high you’ve seen many, many Canada Geese. With their distinctive long necks and black-and-white faces, these large birds are hard to miss. The loud honks of migrating geese flying south are among the best-known sounds of autumn. However, increasing numbers of Canada Geese now stay put all year round, tempted by manicured lawns and post-harvest farm fields, where they can find the grass, berries, grain and seeds they like to eat. Do not get close to them, as they can be aggressive (especially in the spring, when they may be guarding their goslings).

Prime Ottawa spotting locations: Waterfront parks, rural fields and ponds.

American Robin

With its red or orange breast and happy song, the American Robin is easy to identify—and because it is well adapted to cities, it’s also easy to find. The best times to spot American Robins are early in the morning and late in the afternoon from spring through fall, when you’ll often see them hopping across open grassy spaces in search of worms, bugs and fruit. In winter, some fly south, but others simply relocate to woodlands, where there’s a better chance of finding berries and other food. So in the winter, look into the trees or on rooftops to see them.

Prime Ottawa spotting locations: Parks, backyards, wooded areas.

Blue Jay

It’s not hard to spot a Blue Jay: Just listen for their unmistakable noisy call, then look around for a flash of those bright blue feathers, accented by a white breast and black markings. Blue Jays love acorns, so you’ll often find them in and around oak trees, but their diet also includes seeds, fruit and insects. These fairly large birds particularly love peanuts (in the shell or not) and bird baths.  

Prime Ottawa spotting locations: Parks, backyards, forested areas.

Finches

In summer, you can identify American Goldfinches by their small size and bright yellow (males) and olive green (females) plumage. In the winter, you might think these cute little birds have migrated south. However, they’re just harder to spot because their feathers have turned brown. Other finches to look out for in Ottawa include the House Finch (males have a red head and breast) and the Purple Finch (males’ markings are more of a coral-purplish shade).

Prime Ottawa spotting locations: All three types of finches are common in backyards, especially if you have a feeder filled with nyger and sunflower seeds; American Goldfinches like overgrown fields, Purple Finches are often found in coniferous forests and House Finches, true to their name, are usually city dwellers.

Snow Bunting

In their breeding grounds in the high Arctic, these birds are primarily white, with black markings. But when they migrate south for the winter, feathers on their heads, backs and wings turn orange and brown. They often congregate in large flocks, which can be a spectacular sight when all the birds take flight at once. On the ground, they forage for seeds, spiders and insects.

Prime Ottawa spotting locations: Harvested farm fields, meadows and other open spaces.

Ducks

Ducks are a huge category all to themselves. The ducks you’re most likely to spot on and around Ottawa’s rivers and ponds are Mallards; the males have glossy green heads, yellow bills and white neck rings, while the females are brown with black mottling. Both sexes have deep blue wing patches. In the spring, watch for flocks of adorable black-and-yellow ducklings.

Other ducks you may spot in Ottawa include Common Mergansers, Common Goldeneyes and Wood Ducks. From fall through spring, you might see some eye-catching Buffleheads, too.

Don’t give into the temptation to feed bread to ducks, as it isn’t very nutritious for them, and uneaten pieces rot and pollute the water. Oats, birdseed, corn, peas and halved grapes are better choices. Just be sure to scatter them on the ground, rather than encouraging these rather large birds to eat from your hand.

Prime Ottawa spotting locations: Waterways, ponds and adjacent parks.

Sparrows

Often dismissed as simply LBBs (little brown birds), sparrows actually form quite a diverse group. You’re likely to see the House, American Tree, White-Throated, Song and Sparrows throughout the region. Markings on the head and breast are one way to distinguish sparrows from each other. Also keep an eye out for Dark-Eyed Juncos, a sparrow species that is primarily black, grey and white, rather than brown. All sparrows can be seen year round in shrubs, on low tree branches, or on the ground, where they forage for seeds and food scraps.

Prime Ottawa spotting locations: Parks, bird feeders, restaurant patios.

Great Blue Heron

Bring your binoculars to spot this regal, long-legged bird. Even though it’s one of the largest birds found in Ottawa, it can be hard to see. Well camouflaged, it often stands perfectly still on the shorelines of waterways and ponds, waiting to catch unlucky fish. When it does fly, it flaps its enormous wings with slow, deliberate beats.

Prime Ottawa spotting locations: Marshes, waterfront parks. 

Red-Winged Blackbird

Males have the bright red-and-yellow shoulder patches that give this species its name; the mostly brown females resemble big sparrows. Red-Winged Blackbirds are more abundant in Ottawa from spring through fall, when they find lots of insects to eat; however, some stick around through the winter, when they live on seeds. Males sing a bright, three-note song.

Prime Ottawa spotting locations: Marshes and waterways from spring through fall; farm fields in winter.

Black-Capped Chickadee

Listen for the trademark “chick-a-dee-dee-dee” song of these little black-and-white-headed birds. Since many songbirds like to hang out with chickadees, if you point your binoculars toward a chickadee’s call, you may see lots of other species, too. Chickadees love feeders filled with sunflower seeds, peanuts and suet. Some will even eat out of your hand.

Prime Ottawa spotting locations: Woodlands, parks, bird feeders.

Ruby-Throated Hummingbird

The only hummingbird that breeds in the Ottawa area, this tiny, jewel-like bird lives on nectar from tubular flowers, such as honeysuckle and red morning glory. Males have the trademark red throat, and both males and females often have green feathers on other parts of their body. Special hummingbird feeders filled with sugar water will attract them.

Prime Ottawa spotting locations: Gardens, orchards, meadows, bird feeders.

Woodpeckers

Several types of these eye-catching birds are common in Ottawa, including the Hairy Woodpecker and its smaller lookalike, the Downy Woodpecker. They’re easy to find—just listen for them tapping loudly on trees, utility poles and other hard surfaces. Both sexes have black-and-white wings, and males have a bright red spot on their heads. You might also see  Red-Headed and Pileated Woodpeckers. An unusual species of the same family, the Northern Flicker, hunts for insects on the ground as well as in trees, and can be seen in Ottawa from spring through fall.

Prime Ottawa spotting locations: Anywhere with lots of trees, including forests, orchards, parks and backyards.

Nuthatches

In Ottawa, Red-Breasted and White-Breasted Nuthatches are common year round. For tiny birds, they have very loud calls, which may help you find them. They often make their way down tree trunks head first. While they do eat insects, they’ll also happily devour suet, sunflower seeds and peanuts at feeders.

Prime Ottawa spotting locations: Parks and forests with lots of deciduous trees, including maples, oaks and birches.

Waxwings

The Cedar Waxwing lives in Ottawa year round. The Bohemian Waxwing is less common in winter, but since it roams widely and unpredictably, you might spot one anytime. Both species are about the size of a starling and have head crests, black “masks” across their eyes, small bits of red on their wings, and yellow, white and/or orange tail markings. They do eat insects, but they also devour berries and other fruit.

Prime Ottawa spotting locations: Woodlands near water sources, as well as fruit trees and shrubs in urban areas.

Owls

Like ducks, owls could comprise an article all on their own. A small owl with large yellow eyes, the nocturnal Northern Saw-Whet Owl is one of the most common owls in Ottawa. The Short-Eared Owl hunts at dawn and dusk, so you might be more likely to glimpse it. In winter, the spectacular Snowy Owl migrates to Ottawa from the Arctic. A large, mostly white owl, it hunts in daylight.

If you do spot an owl, keep a respectful distance. Many are species at risk, and all have sharp talons.

Prime Ottawa spotting locations: Varies by species; Northern Saw-Whets like forests, while Short-Eared and Snowy Owls prefer open fields and grasslands (the latter are also commonly seen near airports).

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